Scottish author Val McDermid was tapped to re-imagine Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey as part of the Austen project. We asked McDermid (best known for writing "Tartan noir" mysteries) a few questions about the challenges of bringing the book's young characters into the 21st century.
How did you approach this project? Was there anything about the original Northanger Abbey that you were particularly eager to change?
I approached this project with a considerable amount of trepidation! To be invited to reimagine the work of a writer of Jane Austen's stature and popularity was quite unnerving. The first thing I did was to reread the book, which I hadn't done for probably 20 years. And my initial reaction was that the only aspect of the book I wanted to change was to give Catherine Morland a bit more gumption.
What aspect of the book did you find most difficult to modernize?
The most difficult aspect of the book to modernise was the communication. In Austen, quite a lot of narrative tension comes from the length of time it takes letters to get from one place to another. But now we live in a world where relaying information takes moments. I had to find a way plausibly to hold up certain communications and to incorporate texting, messaging and emailing into the story. Not easy, obvs.
Changing the setting from Bath to Edinburgh definitely adds some atmosphere and ties in with the Gothic theme of the story—did you have another reason for choosing it as the setting?
I knew from the start I'd have to move the book's setting because nobody goes to Bath for the season any more. I needed to find somewhere to move it to that was rich in atmosphere but which also provided a reason for people to migrate there for a decent length of time. Edinburgh in August was the perfect answer. The city's population doubles then because of the festivals—the official Edinburgh International Festival, the hundreds of Festival Fringe shows, the Book Festival, the Television Festival and the military splendour of the Tattoo. I know the city well at this time of year and it's a hothouse of socialising and networking. It also had the additional benefit of being close to the Scottish Borders where there is a cluster of medieval abbeys. Northanger made a perfect addition to them.
In Austen, quite a lot of narrative tension comes from the length of time it takes letters to get from one place to another. But now we live in a world where relaying information takes moments.
Gothic novels were the genre fiction of Austen’s time, and the original Northanger Abbey can be read as both a gentle satire of them and a defense of reading for pleasure. This line between “literary” and “genre” fiction is still a hard-fought one today. Do you ever feel the need to defend your work as an author of primarily “genre” fiction? What do you see as the primary purpose of the novel today?
I've never felt the need to 'defend' my work against criticisms of genre. Most of the hostility is based in ignorance. People who issue blanket condemnations of crime fiction generally haven't read anything since Agatha Christie and have no knowledge of the best of contemporary crime fiction, much of which is well-written and convincingly realised. I think the message of the book is the same now as it was originally—writing fiction is the highest expression of a writer's imagination and reading it is the perfect escape into another world. But the danger is expecting fiction to provide a guide to living…
You translate Gothic fiction to the vampire novels that are flooding the teen market today, which seems very appropriate! Have you read any of these books yourself?
I did read some contemporary vampire novels and watched TV and film adaptations. One should always familiarise oneself with the object of one's satire! How we suffer for our art…
Did writing the book make you feel differently about any of the characters than you did when you were just a reader?
The one character I felt I had fleshed out more throughly than Austen was Eleanor Tilney. She doesn't have much of a third dimension in the original, and I wanted to do a bit more with her. It was one of the few areas where I thought I had a bit more scope to get under the skin of the character, explore her possibilities and share them with the readers. And hopefully, they'll like her too.
Author photo by Mimsy Moller.